The ongoing discourse, whether from either the Right or Left spectrum of political thought, over President Trump’s selection for Secretary of Education, reveals a very limited range of concern regarding the plight of education, not to mention the increasingly negative consequences observable among a great many current and former students. The promotion of charter schools, as opposed to the public school system, religious institutions or private academies is without a doubt an overt effort to choose winners and losers through the mechanism of vouchers. Given the existing tax-deductions which increasingly favor the upper strata of income earners, the probable outcome is that this new methodology of subsidizing educational costs will not be an effort to ‘level the playing field’ but rather to further distort inequalities already present. Unquestionably a valid concern.
It is inevitable that legal challenges must follow in order to vet this end-run around the federal government’s responsibility to maintain an effective and financially viable system of public education from pre-school through college. While in itself a comforting thought to advocates of public education, let’s not forget that as such a legal challenge winds its way through the court system, the probability of ultimate success will be greatly dependent on the attendant display of public support that should augment the ‘rank and file’ of administrators and teachers. Should student support be considered a given, or will it present an opportunity to initiate debate on any number of shortcomings that are seemingly always present, but never meaningfully addressed.
In an effort to evaluate the direction that formal education is evolving towards, a look at the past might serve as a valid base-line from which to better gauge the results of human progress. In my reading of the classics of Western thought, I have encountered several references that attested to the fact that in the Hellenic (Ancient Greece) Civilization, educated individuals were capable of memorizing verbatim twenty-five or more volumes of their favorite authors. As an enterprise no longer attainable; the methodology employed in such an educational foundation must now be viewed as a lost art. This does nothing to recommend our technological prowess which increasingly resembles a system of thought control. This rapidly expanding system of interactions between humans and programmable machines hails the advent of artificial intelligence. In place of expanding the capacity of human intelligence through enhanced mental activity, both corporate providers of hardware and software, as well as educational institutions are rushing headlong into an alliance with ‘AI’, suggesting an ever-increasing dependency that in no manner resembles independent thought.
My all too frequent encounters with young people who cannot compute basic arithmetic unaided by some computational device suggests an ever-widening chasm between historically standard-level skills and prevailing expectations. Our species is not now thinking more, we are only interacting more through the medium of internet-connected devices. Judging from historical baselines, there appears to be a fuzzy-kind of knowledge employed to conclude that this represents an expanded dimension of human capabilities. Throughout our economic system we are witnessing the minimization of human involvement, justified by the maximization of corporate profits. The justification attending each new ‘AI’ product development would have us believe that it is but one more effort that will free us from the drudgery of monotonous work. It’s a process that is accelerating with time, and it seems not too far off when the day will arrive that humans will be free from the last remaining drudgery, that of thought.
Issues that far outweigh the selection process of President Trump’s cabinet are being overshadowed by it. I have to wonder if a debate about the goals of education and how these effect and are affected by the widely disseminated views on society’s purported goals would garner so much attention? As the ongoing technological revolution continues and human life dramatically changes in regards to work, social interactions, and our relationship to the planet and all other life forms, are we, in the context of a democratic society, participating in the decisions that set this course? Are the possibilities of ever more serious consequences, including wholly unintended ones, an issue that should only be addressed as they occur? Given the direction of ongoing research into areas such as the indefinite prolongation of human life, genetic engineering that presupposes the desirability of hybrid forms of life, both human and non-human, the augmentation of human intelligence through implants or DNA alteration, and a great many other possibilities of ‘earth-shattering’ magnitude, should the vast majority of humanity be unconcerned by-standers? Do such activities which could have ‘life or death’ implications warrant a far more inclusive consensus? It seems that we may not really know where we’re going, but we are getting there awfully fast. Under such conditions, we may find the eventual destination unlike anything we could have predicted, or agreed to if we had a choice. Where’s the concern?
There are a lot of ‘every-day people’ out there that sense an increasingly controlled future manifesting itself, and their reaction of lashing out at demons that are being presented to them through the artful political demagoguery that we are now witnessing cannot be simply dismissed altogether as misguided or unexpected. When we see books such as George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ once more making the best-seller lists, it’s time to acknowledge that such concerns exist widely and continue to grow with good reason. That reason, as I have come to understand it, is that we are experiencing the consequences of a system of education that cannot teach people to think critically. When I say critically, please understand, that I mean unaided by computers; and certainly not so significantly devoted to the offerings of the bulk of television and video entertainment that they become effectively brainwashed. The capacity for clear thinking is very much dependent on a life-long pursuit of knowledge, and it is only through such a requisite devotion that a questioning mind can develop. Without the breadth of knowledge that offers a more extensive scope of mankind’s history (that is to say, well beyond simply names and dates) there is no sound basis for clear and critical thought. Simply accepting the contrived logic that ‘AI’ will free us of all mundane chores is indicative of a mental laziness that assures those gullible enough to believe that strenuous forms of physical or mental work are anathema to human dignity.
Mr. Trump may, with a great many examples, be accused of not being a ‘lover of truth’, but he very much deserves credit for his, perhaps haphazard, utterance that: “The system is rigged.” I interpret that statement to mean the whole system of Western Civilization as we are now experiencing it. The politics, the economics, the organized religions, and yes, the educational system are now all facets of a rigged system. There’s a lot of work to be done to correct the mess we’re in, and that work cannot begin until the educational system, and all components of it, are capable of teaching their students to correctly question everything; a necessary first step if we are to find solutions that mirror the best interests of humanity as a species,
Submitted on Thursday by: Hugo A. Roller, St. John, VI